Novelist Chinua Achebe Passes on; aged 82

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist seen by millions as the father of African literature, has died at the age of 82.

African papers were reporting his death following an illness and hospital stay in Boston this morning, and both his agent and his publisher later confirmed the news to the Guardian.

Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin, called him an “utterly remarkable man”.

“Chinua Achebe is the greatest of African writers and we are all desolate to hear of his death,” he said.

Short Stories

Short Stories

In a statement, Achebe’s family requested privacy, and paid tribute to “one of the great literary voices of all time. He was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him.”

A novelist, poet and essayist, Achebe was perhaps best known for his first novel Things Fall Apart, which was published in 1958. The story of the Igbo warrior Okonkwo and the colonial era, it has sold more than 10m copies around the world and has been published in 50 languages. Achebe depicts an Igbo village as the white men arrive at the end of the 19th century, taking its title from the WB Yeats poem, which continues: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one,” says Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, in the novel.

The poet Jackie Kay hailed Achebe as “the grandfather of African fiction” who “lit up a path for many others”, adding that she had reread Things Fall Apart “countless times”.

“It is a book that keeps changing with the times, as he did,” she said.

Achebe won the Commonwealth poetry prize for his collection Christmas in Biafra, was a finalist for the 1987 Booker prize for his novel Anthills of the Savannah, and in 2007 won the Man Booker international prize. Chair of the judges on that occasion, Elaine Showalter, said he had “inaugurated the modern African novel”, while her fellow judge, the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, said his fiction was “an original synthesis of the psychological novel, the Joycean stream of consciousness, the postmodern breaking of sequence”, and that Achebe was “a joy and an illumination to read”.

Nelson Mandela, meanwhile, has said that Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world” and called him “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”.

The author is also known for the influential essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1975), a hard-hitting critique of Conrad in which he says the author turned the African continent into “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril”, asking: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

professor of Africana studies

According to Brown University, where Achebe held the position of David and Marianna Fisher university professor and professor of Africana studies until his death, this essay “is recognised as one of the most generative interventions on Conrad; and one that opened the social study of literary texts, particularly the impact of power relations on 20th-century literary imagination”.

Born in 1930 in Ogidi, in the south-east of Nigeria, the author won a scholarship to the University of Ibadan, and later worked as a scriptwriter for the Nigeria Broadcasting Service. He chose to write Things Fall Apart in English – something for which he has received criticism from authors including Ngugi wa Thiong’o – but Achebe said he felt “that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings”.

There Was a Country

There Was a Country

His fourth novel, 1966’s A Man of the People, anticipated a coup that took place in Nigeria just before the book was first published. “I’d ended the book with a coup,” Achebe told the Guardian, “which was ridiculous because Nigeria was much too big a country to have a coup, but it was right for the novel. That night we had a coup. And any confidence we had that things could be put right were smashed. That night is something we have never really got over.”

His most recent work was last year’s mix of memoir and history There Was a Country, an account of the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970.

Achebe was a supporter of Biafran secession, but after the end of the civil war in 1970 he took what he described as a “sojourn” in politics. There he found that “the majority of people … were there for their own personal advancement”, deciding instead to devote himself to academia.

Anthills of the Savannah.

He went on to write what he called a “limited harvest” of five novels – the most recent of which was 1987’s Anthills of the Savannah. “I go at the pace of inspiration and what I can physically manage,” he said.

In 1990 a car accident in Nigeria left him paralysed from the waist down, and forced his move to the US. “I miss Nigeria very much. My injury means I need to know I am near a good hospital and close to my doctor. I need to know that if I went to a pharmacist, the medicine there would be the drug that the bottle says it is,” he said in 2007.

The Trouble with Nigeria

The Trouble with Nigeria

Achebe has twice rejected the Nigerian government’s attempt to name him a Commander of the Federal Republic – a national honour – first in 2004, and second in 2011. In 2004 he wrote that “for some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the presidency … Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 honours list.”

8 thoughts on “Novelist Chinua Achebe Passes on; aged 82

  1. Ah RIP. And there was a time when there were only two Nigerian writers of consequence, Achebe and the Nobel winner Wole Soyinka, and a handful of other major African novelists acceptable to the West. How proud and relieved must Achebe’s spirit be to have spawned a whole generation of brilliant Nigerian writers in the latter half of the 20th century and the still-young 21st century. A bit like my native Pakistan’s great sprouting of literature in English in the last decade or so. He was the last of a breed of writers whose work and politics took shape amid the excitement of African independence struggles and who was not afraid to be committed to the cause of a Nigeria free of the rapacious generals and the curse of multinational corporations, whose cabal has bled Nigeria dry. And he definitely played the price for it inside his own country, as well as paying the price for taking on one of the darlings of the mainstream English-speaking literary establishment, namely Joseph Conrad. A true son of the African soil. I also take the opportunity of Achebe’s demise to remember another courageous Nigerian writer who fought with his words as much as with his politics, the brave Ken Saro-Wiwa, spearhead of the Ogoni peoples’ right to self-determination who dared challenge the might of Sani Abacha’s Nigeria and his clients – Shell – in defence of the rights of the dispossessed, and unlike Achebe, was cut down in his prime by the generals’ boots and the corporation’s guns. A fittting successor to Achebe, in my opinion. I for one will be reading Things Fall Apart over the weekend as a tribute to Achebe’s indomitable spirit and as a reflection to things generally falling apart, politically and socially speaking in my own native Pakistan,also dominated by military generals and corrupt venal politicians, although no oil. Farewell Chinua Achebe, you were much needed in our gradually provincializing and xenophobic world, as an antidote to what the so-called ‘civilized’ world dishes about Africa.We in post-colonial Pakistan and South Asia salute your courage and commitment to pioneering a literature of resistance for Africa.

  2. I will remember him for his graphic description of the coming of independence in Nigeria and Africa, in his novel a man of the people, he said,’we ignore mans basic nature if we say, as some critics do, that because a man…..had risen overnight from poverty and insignificance to his present opulence he could be persuaded without much trouble to give it up again and return to his original state. A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on new clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time.The trouble with our new nation is that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say ‘to hell with it’ We had all been in the rain together until yesterday, then a handful of us-the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best-had scrambled for the one shelter our former rulers had left and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in. And from within they sought to persuade the rest through numerous loud speakers, that the first phase of the struggle had been won and that the next phase-the extension of the house was even more important and called for new and original tactics, it required all argument to cease and the whole people to speak with one voice and that any more decent and argument outside the door of the shelter would subvert and bring down the whole house..’ may God rest his creative soul…

  3. Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as
    “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”

    This is just a tip of the iceberg on the basic factualness of Achebe’s criticism of Conrad.

    In what sense is the above-quoted passage a criticism?

  4. Chinua Achebe has a special reference for me because I taught his book to some very reluctant Year 12 exam students in Oxford, England, at a time when black writers – and black teachers – were not fashionable, to an all white class. The reception of Achebe by the students was not good, to put it mildly.

    At the start of the one year course they complained bitterly about the ‘funny names’ that they couldn’t pronounce; they were constantly asking what Africa had to do with England, they found it very hard to read, they said – despite its easy and enveloping narrative – and they resented it being taught. Period. They were sure that they would fail this part of their course. Why couldn’t they do predictable options like all the other schools, they wailed. I was very disappointed in their reaction, my enthusiasm rapidly dissipated, but I persevered, unbending.

    In summary, ahat exam group did the best in English Literature in the whole of Oxfordshire for that section in 1987. They all came back to thank me profusely for introducing them to Achebe, and for my resilience in sticking with them.

    But the icing on the cake was that one of the students actually wrote me a surprise letter from Norway, months later, to thank me for persevering with her class, and to tell me that she was passing on her enthusiasm about Achebe “to anyone who would listen”!

    That was aimply priceless.

    Rest In Peace, Prof. Achebe. You changed more lives and perspectives than you could ever imagine.

  5. Pingback: Best Authors From Kenya. | Literature in Africa | Fasihi

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